Five Myths About Psychiatric Medications - VA Palo Alto Health Care System
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Five Myths About Psychiatric Medications

Bottles of prescription medicine in a pile

Many myths surround the effectiveness and usage of psychiatric medications.

By Joann Phan, PharmD, BCPS, PGY2 Psychiatric Pharmacy Resident
Friday, June 12, 2020

Psychiatric medications, also known as psychotropic medications, are a group of medications used to treat and manage mental illness. These drugs work by balancing different chemicals in the brain. Common psychiatric medications include antidepressants, anti-anxiety medications, antipsychotics, mood stabilizers, sedative-hypnotics, and stimulants. Despite their important role in the treatment of mental health disorders, many myths surround the effectiveness and usage of these medications. As a result, people may not seek treatment or stop their medications without informing their provider. This article discusses the most common of these myths.

Myth #1: “Psychiatric medications are bad and are just a crutch for weak people who cannot take care of their problems.”

Some believe that psychiatric medications are simply “happy pills” that offer “an easy way out” for weak people who cannot deal with their problems. This is untrue because it takes enormous courage for someone to seek treatment and help. In combination with therapy, medications have shown to improve quality of life. For many patients with mental illness, these medications are necessary to alleviate symptoms and allow function in daily life.

Myth #2: “Psychiatric medications are addictive.”

Most psychiatric medications are not addictive, although anti-anxiety, sedative-hypnotics, and stimulants are an exception to this. Many people experience withdrawal symptoms when they stop taking certain medications, but this does not mean that an addiction has developed. If you have concerns about withdrawals, talk to your doctor about slowly stopping the medication rather than stopping abruptly.

Myth #3: “I’ll feel better right away.”

It can take 4-6 weeks or more at the correct dosage to see the benefits of anti-depressants. Furthermore, finding the right medication can be difficult, and multiple trials of different medications might be necessary. It is important to discuss with your doctor if you go beyond the trial period without seeing results.

Myth #4: “If a medication works for my friend, it will work for me.”

Psychiatric medications work differently for each person. A medication that may have been helpful for someone you know may not be the right medication for you. Many conditions can show similar symptoms, but they may be treated differently. This is one of many reasons that you should never take other people’s medications.

Myth #5: “Over-the-counter (OTC) medications and supplements are safe to take with psychiatric medications.”

Psychiatric medications can interact with foods, other prescribed or OTC medications. These interactions may lead to changes in brain chemistry and have negative effects on mood and thoughts. So, ask your doctor or a pharmacist about foods and other medications that should be avoided. If there is a change in your medication regimen, they can provide more information regarding drug-drug interactions and how to manage them.

OTC Medications or FoodsInteraction
St. John’s Wort Taking St. John’s Wort with antidepressants can lead to a potential life-threatening increase of serotonin, a chemical produced by brain cells. Symptoms include agitation, diarrhea, fast heartbeat, high blood pressure, hallucinations and increased body temperature.
Valerian Root This herbal supplement should be used very carefully with other medications as it can cause sleepiness and drowsiness.
Alcohol Drinking alcohol can impact mood and increase risk for depression, anxiety, and suicide. It is also dangerous to drink alcohol while taking anxiety or pain medications, as the combination can cause excessive drowsiness, slowed breathing, and even death.
Marijuana There are health risks associated with marijuana use. In particular, it can cause hallucinations or paranoia and worsen depression and anxiety. It is not advised to use marijuana in patients with mental illness.

For mental health services, Veterans and their family members can connect with support at local VA facilities, telehealth sessions, and online resources. Please visit VA Mental Health for more information.

References:
1. Beaubrun, G., & Gray, G. E. (2000). A Review of Herbal Medicines for Psychiatric Disorders. Psychiatric Services, 51(9), 1130–1134. doi: 10.1176/appi.ps.51.9.1130
2. Ross, S. L. (2019, October 1). NAMI: Six Myths And Facts About Mental Illness. Retrieved March 29, 2020
3. Mental Health Medications. (2016, October 1). Retrieved March 29, 2020
4. Shelby, E. (2019, March 1). NAMI-What To Avoid With Psychiatric Medications. Retrieved March 29, 2020

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